Rest in peace, Golden Oaks Library (and please don’t come back): the importance of character death

The destruction of Golden Oaks library (understandably) caused a stir among the fandom.  A small-but-vocal minority decried the decision, characterizing it as a blatant attempt to sell toys at the expense of the show’s quality.

Surprisingly, Digibrony himself was among the detractors, criticizing the library’s destruction in his now-infamous review of the episode.

Normally, this is the part of the essay where I would link to Digi’s vid and quote the relevant parts.  Unfortunately, some jerk has falsely reported his channel for inappropriate content, and Youtube has taken his entire channel down.  Hopefully, it goes the way of Dr. Wolf and Mr. Enter’s channels and gets restored fairly soon.

[EDIT: Digi got his channel back!]

In the meantime, it will have to suffice to say that Digi really, really didn’t like the destruction of Golden Oaks.  He criticized the removal of an iconic, unique, and charming piece of the show, complaining that it had been replaced with a thoroughly generic and uninteresting fantasy castle.

Digi’s video is the single most downvoted analysis vid I’ve seen, so apparently most fans don’t share his intense distaste for the move.  But many still regard the destruction of Golden Oaks with suspicion.  Silver Quill just plays it for laughs, but he clearly regards it as merely a cash-grab from Hasbro.

This attitude isn’t universal — I have seen several members of the analysis community defend the destruction of Golden Oaks.  Cam and NickyV in particular commend the decision for shaking things up and making big changes, and that is true.  But there’s more to it than that, and I haven’t seen anyone give Golden Oaks’ destruction the praise it deserves.

People, this isn’t just “not a problem.”  This isn’t just “fine.”  This is a fantastic piece of storytelling.

To illustrate why, let me share a comment I read shortly after the finale aired.  I can’t remember where I saw it (if you know, please tell me so I can add the source), but it’s remarkably insightful:

This is the closest the show has come to killing a major character.

So, to explain why this move is so great, we first need to ask: why do authors kill characters?

There are many answers to that question, of course.  While saddening, a beloved character’s death can provide catharsis — this is why the Tragedy is such an enduring genre.  A character’s death is also a major source of conflict, and therefore of good material for a story.  The reactions of the other characters provide insight into their personalities and can spur development.  On a somewhat brighter note, the knowledge that the characters can die makes the emotional payoff that much greater when they survive — if failure isn’t possible, then success means nothing.

This is, naturally, only a partial list.  Suffice to say that character death — or at least the threat of character death — is a powerful tool for a storyteller.

But of course, in a show like Friendship is Magic, that tool can’t really be used.  Character death isn’t an option, and so some degree of effectiveness is lost.

More generally, we all know we’ll get a Happily Ever After once the episode is over.  We can, of course, suspend our disbelief, but that only does so much.  We all knew that Nightmare Moon didn’t really shatter the Elements of Harmony.  We all knew that Chrysalis wouldn’t really take over Canterlot.  We all knew that Sombra wouldn’t really re-conquer the Crystal Empire.  At the end of the day, everything would go back to normal, and the status quo would reign supreme.  We could rest easy.

And then Tirek blew up Golden Oaks Library.

Boom.

Boom.

With this move, McCarthy & Co. have reminded us that while character death might not be an option, there are things at stake.  They can’t kill characters, but they can destroy things that the audience likes.  And in doing so, they’re achieving many of the goals served by character death.

If the aftermath of this is well done (and it probably will be), we’ll get to see the same reactions — in lesser form — that the Mane Six would have to a character death.  We’ll get to see the conflict that results.  We’ll get insight into the characters by watching how they handle the situation.

Indeed, the destruction of the library leads to great storytelling before it even occurs. When Twilight saves Owlowiscious, it’s a superb character moment (it’s also just really freakin’ cool).

The destruction of Golden Oaks also helped give Tirek credibility as a villain.  By most accounts, Tirek is the most ominous and imposing antagonist the series has yet seen.  The Keghorn Brothers noted this in their review of the finale.  Unfortunately, I can’t quote the vid for you, because SME has blocked their vid on copyright grounds.

…I’m just gonna leave this here.

Anyway, a major reason for Tirek’s effectiveness is this; he is the only villain who’s had a major, permanent negative effect on the world (from the perspective of the audience, anyway).  In Season 5, we are all going to feel the absence of the library.  Twilight’s new palace may be cool, but (like Digi said) it lacks the unique atmosphere and homey-ness of Golden Oaks.  We will miss that library.  And we will remember that Tirek is responsible, and resent him for it — which makes him a much more effective villain.

“Just a centaur”?  “Just a centaur”!?  Has it occurred to you that we are halfway to canonizing Humans in Equestria!?  This is a slippery slope, I tell you!

Furthermore, the library’s destruction means that the effectiveness of future villains will be increased.  When the next trickster god, hive mother, or whatever rolls into Equestria during the S5 premiere, the stakes will be higher.  We can no longer assume that any damage they cause will be fixed.  What will the next casualty be?  Carousel Boutique?  The Crystal Empire courts?  Canterlot Castle?

We’re going to sit up and take notice, because we know now that the world of FiM is not invincible.  We’re going to be more invested — which means the story will be more effective.

In a setting where character death can’t be used, it’s tempting to just accept that dramatic tension will be way lower than usual.  But loss can still occur, and it can still be very potent.  None of us — audience or storyteller — should forget that.

[EDIT 2015-02-19: Apparently, at some point in the last few days, all the paragraph breaks were removed from this post.  I have no idea how this happened — pretty sure that wasn’t the case a couple days ago.  I’ve fixed it, though now I’m really paranoid it’s going to happen again — this is the writing equivalent of walking around all day with your fly unzipped.]


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4 Responses to Rest in peace, Golden Oaks Library (and please don’t come back): the importance of character death

  1. Nick Ha says:

    It would be a fantastic piece of storytelling if the show had treated the death of the “character” with the sense of gravitas you would _normally_ affix to such an event. It’s difficult to treat it as the serious thematic upheaval it wants to be, when it fails to do so itself. Twilight gets an angry face for two seconds and then they defeat the big bad with the Magic of Friendship™, get a brand new castle, and sing a song about rainbows.

    The show can’t challenge its own status quo if it happily sticks its fingers in its own ears, singing loudly and pretending everything’s okay. The future may prove different, but right now, as the fandom sits in the throes of a year-plus hiatus, we have absolutely no satisfying closure to the death.

    The fact that the castle doesn’t fit with the architecture of Ponyville, and its very existence going against the former themes of the show, is just icing.

    Isolated, the death of the tree might not seem like a big deal. But when you take it into perspective with the rest of the show, it was so much more than the death of a character–it was the death of the things that the tree represented, invisibly, just by existing and becoming a fabric of Twilight’s reality.

    Twilight had moved _out_ of a castle _into_ the tree. She had moved away from a life surrounded by lonely luxury into a much more humble existence. She left behind the glitz and glamour that was Canterlot in favor of the sleepy town of Ponyville, which has even been described by Lauren Faust herself as a “backwater” (sentiments oft-echoed by the Canterlot citizenry). That would be seen by most people as a downgrade, but one of the show’s major themes was to reinforce the idea that it’s _okay_ to live in a world without all that unnecessary pomp and circumstance that comes with glamour. Because if you lived a life of meaning, if you could grow to appreciate the rustic charms of even the simplest things, none of that matter.

    This causal disdain of glamour and high society that exemplified the Faust era and was present in so very many early episodes–Green Isn’t Your Color, Sweet and Elite, The Best Night Ever–has pretty much been obliterated to make way for weddings, coronations, Crystal Empires, and fall formals, which have taken all of those early themes and stuffed them into a coffin. The tree’s “death” all but nailed it shut.

    You can kill a character and that’s fine, but if you kill the ideals they embodied, even by distant proxy, that’s a different matter entirely.

    • dogman15 says:

      If you watched either of the Season 5 trailers, you’d see that there’s a tease that they’re going to spend the necessary time to grieving for the tree in the first episode.

  2. Pingback: “It’s for kids” is not an excuse | The Pony's Litterbox

  3. zidders says:

    Eh. I’m with Nick. It was stupid of them just like it was stupid of them to make Starlight Glimmer so evil and then act like singing a song fixed everything.

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